Friday, December 30, 2011

Turn It On Again: Best albums of 2011

Editor's note: I've already explored my best of 2011 albums list in abbreviated form for Popblerd and in much more depth with Jay Breitling on CompCon (listen to parts 1 and 2; part 3 will be up tomorrow night). But here's my top 15 of a particularly strong year for rock music.

2011 was packed with a lot of negativity, from the economy to the political rhetoric that continues to scrape rock bottom. But one good thing about this year was the plethora of excellent music released...for rock fans, at least. You may not have heard all these releases on the radio; I know I didn't, because I rarely listen to the radio anymore.

So let's get things rolling...

15. PJ Harvey--Let England Shake
I've been a fan of Polly Jean Harvey since she first burst on the scene back in the early '90s, but her last few releases didn't quite do it for me. This was a return to form, albeit not the rock-based sound that first drew me to her. These are haunting songs about war with sparse arrangements and a lot of autoharp. Truly inspired.

14. Mastodon--The Hunter
After releasing the trippy concept album Crack the Skye in 2009, Mastodon went in the other direction with their latest release by sticking to shorter, controlled bursts of metal. The result is not The Black Album 20 years later, but a powerful collection still retaining the core kick-ass elements of Mastodon: Thundering guitars, insanely frenetic drums and strangely catchy choruses.

13. Foo Fighters--Wasting Light
Another act that I'd soured on in recent years, the Foo Fighters bounced back with an album that moved away from the prom anthems of their last few albums and back to what Dave Grohl and company do best: bringing the rock. Much was made of Grohl and producer Butch Vig recording the album in Grohl's garage on old-school tape (as opposed to digitally), but the real difference is in the songs. In addition, Bob Mould and Krist Novoselic made guest appearances, and Pat Smear rejoined the band to add a little extra oomph.

12. Yuck--Yuck
The sounds of '90s alt-rock permeated this year and Yuck was certainly representative of that, echoing Geffen-era Sonic Youth and Dino Jr. Lots of feedback and thick riffs surrounding mopey yet catchy vocals. It was an irresistible combination.

11. Mighty Fine--Get Up to Get Down
This was an unexpected entry at midyear because I had never heard of these guys before stumbling across a Village Voice blog post about them in the fall. Frontman Steve Myers was a backup singer for the Afghan Whigs in the late '90s and recruited Greg Dulli and the Dirtbombs' Mick Collins to contribute vocals to this debut from his new band, which combines R&B with garage rock. It's a great sound and I look forward to seeing this band live.

10. Drive-By Truckers--Go-Go Boots
This uber-prolific band pretty much releases an album every year and manages to maintain a high level of quality with each one. This was recorded during the same sessions as 2010's The Big To-Do, but these songs lean more on adding soul and R&B elements to DBT's country-rock mix. The workload is spread among three songwriters (leader Patterson Hood, guitarist Mike Cooley and bassist Shonna Tucker), so the results are diverse. Tucker recently left the band, so it'll be interesting to see where DBT goes from here (Sugar's David Barbe is filling in on tour).

9. J. Mascis--Several Shades of Why
Dinosaur Jr. leader J. Mascis is known for the jet-engine guitar roar he generates with that band, and seeing the original lineup performing their classic album Bug this year did little to dispel that. But at the same time, Mascis released an excellent collection of mostly-acoustic folk rock that revealed another side of his playing.

8. Beastie Boys--Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2
The Beasties returned with an album that echoed their classic mid-90s releases Check Your Head and Ill Communication. This came despite a cancer scare for Adam Yauch that forced some rescheduling. But the boys sound in good form, balancing their natural party sounds with the point of view of well-traveled guys in their 40s.

7. Buffalo Tom--Skins
Alt-rock heroes Buffalo Tom celebrated their 25th anniversary with a terrific new album that slots in with any of the full lengths they did back in the day. Even though the three members are all now, as Bill Janovitz says, part-time men of rock, you wouldn't know it from this release. The band played three shows in November celebrating the anniversary, but it looks like we won't see them again for a while, which is too bad.

6. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks--Mirror Traffic
Another '90s alt-rock stalwart, Malkmus recorded this album before touring with the reformed Pavement. It's more focused than his previous solo release, Real Emotional Trash, which emphasized his jam-rock tendencies. There's still some of that here, but the solos are shorter and the lyrics a little more on point. A worthy addition to the Malkmus canon.

5. The Twilight Singers--Dynamite Steps
Greg Dulli likes to stay busy. Whether it's with the Twilight Singers, the Gutter Twins or with his old band, the Afghan Whigs (who are finally reuniting for some shows in 2012), Dulli is not one to sit idly by. Dynamite Steps is another typically excellent release of moody tales of love and lust that should not be missed by anyone who enjoys rock with substance.

4. Wild Flag--Wild Flag
Here was a debut from some more alt-rock heroes of the '90s, teaming up Mary Timony of Helium with Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney. The results are magnificent, a rock tour de force that picks up where S-K's final album The Woods left off. While that album was Zeppelinesque in its power, Wild Flag packs in a jittery, herky-jerky energy that's infectious. Looking forward to seeing them live in a few months.

3. Deer Tick--Divine Providence
Deer Tick's indie-rock star has been on the rise for a few years. The band leans heavily on alt-country sounds, but also brings a heavy dose of the rock to the mix as evidenced by the "Deervana" covers of Nirvana songs it does from time to time. There's always been a Replacements influence on DT and that really shines through on Divine Providence, which rocks with abandon.

2. Sloan--The Double Cross
Sloan celebrated its 20th anniversary as a band this year, and did so with a typically strong collection of power pop and rock to mark the occasion. The band's four singer-songwriters bring their A games to this album, which proves they're at the peak of their powers.

1. Fucked Up--David Comes to Life
This was far and away my favorite album of the year. David Comes to Life is a sprawling rock opera about a factory worker in 1970s-era England, but more importantly, it kicks serious ass all over the place. Fucked Up songs are often a tug-of-war between the majestic guitars and the distinctive gravelly bellow of singer Pink Eyes, occasionally set off by angelic backing vocals. Whether you care about the storyline or just dig the catchiness of “Queen of Hearts,” “Ship of Fools” and “The Other Shoe,” David Comes to Life is an album that sticks with you.

Honorable mentions: The Feelies--Here Before, Johnny Foreigner--Johnny Foreigner vs. Everything, Los Campesinos--Hello Sadness, Maritime--Human Hearts, Wilco--The Whole Love, Boston Spaceships--Let It Beard, The Dears--Degeneration Street, The Hush Now--Memos, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit--Here We Rest, Telekinesis--12 Desperate Straight Lines, TV On the Radio--Nine Types of Light, Okkervil River--I Am Very Far, Radiohead--The King of Limbs, Anthrax--Worship Music, R.E.M.--Collapse Into Now.

Also: A few albums I got late in the year, but which are worthy of praise include St. Vincent's Strange Mercy, the Black Keys' El Camino and the Roots' Undun.

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